What Australia’s elections tell us about the Alternative Vote

The “decisive” voting system led to a hung parliament — does this tell us anything we didn’t already

This weekend's Australian polls resulted in a hung parliament as the two main parties each failed to win an outright majority. The horse-trading has begun.

So far, so similar to May 2010. But there is an important difference -- Australia's House of Representatives is voted in by the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which will be offered to the British public in a referendum next year.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has released some thoughts on what this election showed us about AV.

It argues that "AV has delivered decisive results in each and every Australian seat". While two-thirds of British MPs hold a weak mandate in their constituency (with less than 50 per cent of voters in the area supporting them), Australian candidates must gain at least 50 per cent of the vote.

Highlighting the "decisiveness" of the system might seem odd, given that Australia is without a government at present, as coalition negotiations get under way. However, this is the country's first hung parliament in 70 years.

The ERS does a simple comparison over time. Australians hold more elections than the UK, due to shorter-term lengths. This means that, since 1940 -- the date of their last hung parliament -- they have had 27 federal elections. Of the past 28 British general elections, three have delivered a hung parliament (in 1929, February 1974 and 2010).

What this basic comparison boils down to is that there's no greater risk of hung parliaments under the AV system. The relative unusualness of the outcome in both countries indicates the role of global economic and political uncertainty.

However, there are some important differences between Australia's political situation and ours which make a like-for-like comparison reductive. Australia has a de facto two-party system between Labor and the coalition of the Liberal Party, the National Party and the County Liberal Party.

Comparing the frequency of hung parliaments in the past overlooks the role of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who would be likely to benefit hugely from second-preference votes under AV. If we were to end up creating a three-party system, that could indeed make hung parliaments more likely.

All in all, this doesn't tell us a huge amount that we didn't already know. AV is not perfect; nor is it proportional. It can throw up the same quirks as first-past-the-post. But, in ensuring that each candidate at least has a strong mandate, it is an improvement on the status quo.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.